Paul McAleer: Hi. You’re listening to Designing Yourself. This is Paul McAleer.
Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.
So, Paul, I noticed earlier today that you Tweeted something about stress. I think you’re asking, how do you deal with stress? And I was really curious about what was really going on that made you Tweet that. What’s up with stress and you lately?
Paul: Do you read all my Tweets? You don’t have to say yes. It’s fine if you don’t. I don’t read all my Tweets.
Whitney: I don’t always have Twitter open during the day because I’m actually trying to get things done. But I follow a few number of people, relatively speaking. And I do that because I want to see what everyone’s up to. So, yes, I did read your Tweets about stress. And it was earlier in the morning, if I can remember. So, you were asking something about how you deal with stress. What was that about?
Paul: Yeah. So, the thing that I have noticed lately is that, you know, first of all I’m not feeling stressed in the moment. I understand you are, and I want to talk about that, too. But I'm noticing it more in people. And this is something, if I think back to my own experiences as well as those of friends and family and coworkers, I can see kind of where people are kind of making their own stress.
And that is a new perspective for me because I always thought, or used to think, that stress was something that kind of happened to you, like it was put upon you, and then you had to deal with it as you see fit, right?
But more and more lately, just kind of thinking back to all these things, I’m seeing it now more as a reaction and the way that we individually respond to something that's happening out in the environment. That may seem kind of elementary, but for me it was a change of perspective for certain.
So, with that in mind, I asked people on Twitter this morning, just threw it out there and asked about what do you do to kind of deal with stress, and do you deal with it? And I want to talk about that. But first let’s see if we agree on stress is, because I’m curious where you come from with it, too.
Whitney: It’s funny. I actually have a very visual image of what stress is. I think of it as force. So, a physical, literal stress is when there is a force being pressed on something, and it either compresses it or it moves it or it causes more instability in it or it causes pressure in it. And it weakens it in some way.
I really do see stress in that very visual term. And so, when I think about being stressed, I envision something similar. There is a weight on me. There is a pressure to do something, to achieve something. There is - I’m being pushed in a certain direction or I’m being pushed up against something so I am being compressed.
And so, when I’m stressed I feel that I have less time, less freedom, maneuverability. I feel like I have less choice. And sometimes that stress is external, like I feel somebody is pressuring me to do something. But more often than not the stress is self-imposed, so just what you were talking about.
And we talked in the last two episodes about this kind of pull or dichotomy between readiness and permission, where readiness is internal and permission is external. And I think that stress has the ability to be both. So, you can be stressed by somebody, but ultimately being stressed is within your own control because we can’t really control other people’s actions or other people’s attitudes. But we can control how we respond to them.
So even when there are external factors, to some extent we are able to manage our own stress. But then when it has to do with our own internal drives or our own, you know, desires to accomplish something and we’re taking on too much or we’re not taking care of our bodies or we’re not, you know, balancing our time spent well enough, then we’re manufacturing even more stress inside of ourselves. So I do see it as being a little bit of both.
Paul: So, when you mentioned the physical aspect of it, immediately I thought about the idea of carrying and feeling stress in your body. I know that for me it has always manifested itself in my shoulders, and they just end up being very tight. And I might kind of - I notice it in my posture as well. I might kind of lean forward, or I might kind of, you know, scrunch my shoulders up or things like that.
But I notice that’s kind of where it shows up for my physically. And that’s - and given what you said, too, that’s almost my body taking in - you know, if it is external stress, for example, taking in what’s going on and then having that physical manifestation of it which, again, is kind of noticing that in myself and seeing that happen as well. So, when you said physical, that’s where I went first.
Whitney: So, it’s in the shoulders. And when you notice that your shoulders are tight or in pain, that’s a cue for you that you must be dealing with some stress?
Paul: Yeah. And it could be something that’s pretty low grade, but it might still be there. And I know that, you know, with the way that I had dealt with stress in general in the past is I just felt like I was consistently in a stressful situation, like that was my default mode.
Much like you were saying that it’s a matter of pressures and where they’re coming from, for a lot of time I would say I had felt just under pressure to do everything for everybody. And that caused me to be very stressed out in general. And just then it pulls into our old friends of fear and anxiety and then making sure you’re doing everything right according to whatever checklist or scorecard you’re going by. I mean, it kind of pulled into all that stuff.
But, for me all of that combined ended up just being a big old stress ball. And it didn’t -but also, for me, it didn’t really - I didn’t see it as something I could turn into something really productive. It was just kind of this disgusting kind of feeling I had with me of just feeling like, wow, there’s so much to do and so much I need to do. And that pressure and that stress stayed with me in almost everything.
Whitney: It’s so interesting because you started talking about all these things that other people - like the stress of other people’s expectations. But then as you were talking you said that you felt the need to do all these things for people. And so, it in a sense sounded to me like that stress was self-manufactured, that it was your sense of yourself that you had to do things for others.
And because you were overextending yourself and wanting so much to do things for so many other people and be so much of a help that you then created more stress in your life. And maybe as you’ve come to better understand what your limits are and where your self-worth is, that you don’t have to overextend yourself to the same extent and therefore aren’t stressed.
Paul: No, totally not, because if it’s - I think a fine example, and I want to get your perspective on this, too, is regarding deadlines. Deadlines are a reality for probably both of our lines of work, I would say. And there’s an expectation, like you’re going to get me this thing or you’re going to - you promised to get me something on this date or by this time or whatever it is.
And the way that I approach deadlines is pretty consistent. I always try to get things done well in advance of any deadlines. And I’m talking like if I can beat that deadline by a day or two or more, I’m thrilled. But I don’t feel conscious stress about that.
The stress that I would feel is if I got really close to the deadline. And then I would be just in kind of more of a, “Oh man, am I going to get this done?” type of situation. For me, I’d much rather get something done, out of the way, early, so then when the actual deadline rolls around either I’m totally prepared and calm, cool and collected or I can deliver something ahead of time to somebody.
And that might be a document or a report or a presentation or whatever. But for me that is something - that’s a situation where I don’t see much value in being right up against the deadline because for me that will cause a very different type of stress and I will not be the best me I can be in that moment. So, I’m curious. What do you think about deadlines? And do you see them as stressful at all?
Whitney: Oh my God. It’s too funny because you’re describing yourself as how I wish I was.
Paul: Oh, wow. OK.
Whitney: I require deadlines. When I don’t have deadlines and things are open-ended, things just don’t get done. So, when someone’s making a request of me, even something totally benign like, hey, will you make an introduction to so-and-so, either I ask them when do you need this done by and I have them create that deadline or, more often than not, I say I will have that to you by tomorrow morning.
If I don’t set that for myself, even if they don’t need it by tomorrow morning, it’s never going to happen. And so, deadlines are essential to my productivity and to my effectiveness in everything that I do. I thrive with deadlines.
I also thrive, to a certain extent, with stress. So, I cannot operate stress-free. When I am stress-free, it’s wonderful. I’m happy. I’m having a good time. But I am not getting anything done. And that’s OK because the purpose of my life isn’t always to get things done. The purpose of my life is to be happy. But that’s a newfound purpose. That was not a statement that I would have made two years ago.
So, I am now in a phase of my life where I don’t feel as if I owe anything to anyone. That’s something I’m working on, but I’m trying very hard to not feel as if my worth comes from getting things done. However, I make money by getting things done. And if I didn’t get things done ever, then I wouldn’t make a living and I wouldn’t have a lot of the things in my life that I have now that I really value.
So, getting things done is essential. And for me I have to have some amount of stress in order to catalyze my action. So, otherwise I’m just loafing around. I am really good at doing nothing. I am really good at watching TV. I’m really good at going to the beach, putting my feet in the sand and staying out of the ocean.
I’m really good at going out to restaurants and eating. I’m really good at exploring the city, taking long walks. I am so good at not doing anything. And, I rarely get bored. And I rarely feel stressed or feel anything negative at all except for when I then look at the bank account and realize, hmm, I haven’t exactly been trying to work much lately.
So, that stress propels me forward, and it keeps me productive and active. However, when I am coming too close to the deadline and I am now realizing that the amount of effort required to do this to my standard is more than the amount of time that I have left before the deadline, then panic sets in.
So, I need to have enough stress to get me going and get me productive but not so much stress that I am having a total meltdown and I become completely unproductive, because I realize that now that I have such a limited amount of time to get the thing done I am going to be compromising on quality that I value in what I deliver to others.
And that was a space that I lived in for a very long time. I would say the first three to four years of running my business, I was in that space of, holy shit, deadline is approaching and I am now going to have to compromise on quality of my work as a result of it.
It wasn’t because I was going around, you know, slacking off and doing whatever the hell I felt like. It was because I had so many other obligations that by the time the deadline for the present obligation came it was too late. And that was because I was allowing deadlines to be set that were completely inappropriate for the workload that I had, and I was in a sense manufacturing stress that never needed to be created in the first place had I just better set expectations with my clients and with myself of what I was capable of achieving.
And I learned that bad practice of letting other people set the deadlines and basically just accepting whatever anybody else asked in my very first full-time job. And I remember that I was really quick getting things done, and people noticed that.
And so they started asking if it could get done sooner and sooner because they had originally said a week. And I didn’t need a week, so I was doing what you did and I was handing things in in advance. And they were like, oh, she only needs four days.
And then I was getting it done, you know, in three days. And they’re like, oh, I guess she only needs three days. And then I was getting it done in two days. And my manager at the time - because I was starting to get super-stressed out because people were putting really challenging deadlines on me.
And she said think about it. You set those expectations. Next time that you have a weeklong deadline, or at least demand a weeklong deadline, and it takes you three days to get it done, don’t give it to them until the end of the week because you are going to put yourself in a situation where people think they can ask for less and less and less time and you’re still going to deliver.
And because I was so obsessed with delivering high quality and exceeding people’s expectations, I was pulling all-nighters. I was eating shitty food. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t taking care of myself. And I was totally burning myself out. And I carried that into- I was so used to that, that was a habit. I carried that into my business when I went independent.
And then I realized that I was stressing myself out to the point of sickness and I wasn’t delivering at the level of quality that I had expected of myself and that I had allowed others to expect of me. So, it’s all - it becomes a vicious cycle or it becomes a virtuous cycle. And I really think the choice is yours.
How is it that you became so good about, you know, managing things ahead of time and giving, you know, giving what was required of you before the deadline and, like, being so up front and diligent about that and doing it in such a way that you weren’t creating stressful situations for yourself?
Paul: It’s interesting that you apply the word “good” to that right away. I see it as good as well, but I guess it could go either way. So, for me a lot of it came to really wanting to -well, wanting to exceed expectations, right, and wanting to do better than people were expecting and kind of surprise them.
And it sounds like much you, to a degree, where it was, you know, if I had a week and a half to do something and I could deliver it in four days, then people would be thrilled and say, wow, Paul did this in four days. That’s fantastic. And that angle of it stayed with me. Like, that part of it where people would say, OK, well, this is good, and I’m glad that he did it faster than I expected.
But, as you said, the danger with that then is you’re setting that expectation not only with other people but with yourself. And that’s the part of the conversation that’s really interesting to me because those are things that we might not realize in the moment. Or we might realize them and kind of poo-poo them because we solved this deadline or this thing to deal with, this very stressful thing.
But it does take a toll. I think the biggest thing that I found with that is, at some point I was able to separate it and kind of de-stress from that by mostly looking at it from a pretty rational perspective and letting my brain kind of drive it a little more than my heart, right?
It was more like, OK, if we plan it out this way so you’re done with this thing that’s due on Friday on Wednesday, OK. Then you're good because then you’ve got Thursday and Friday to reflect on it, relax, prepare, whatever I need to do, or refine it.
I didn’t find that value in using stress as a tool as it sounds like you did. And I see this in other people as well where there might be a real deadline or there might be an artificial one, like we need this as soon as possible, right? And that happens a lot. People will say, well, we need this now.
And, I’ve noticed this in people I’ve worked with all during my career, like for years and years, where they’ll be given a deadline or a lack thereof, and they’ll say, well, I’ve got to get this done as soon as possible. And they’ll knock themselves out over this. But then that expectation now is that now they’re going to knock themselves out over every single request from there on out.
And that is not sustainable. And that’s painful, and that can hurt, too. So, when that happens, I mean, when you see this, you know, it sounds like you were talking about you noticed this. You noticed that you were pulling all-nighters and there was the issue of making sure it was the best-quality thing that you could do or up to your standards.
So, how do you deal with that? Because, when we’re in these situations, they are often just mad stressful when we’re in them. What do you do, and when do you do it? And did I totally dodge your question, too? Because I think I might have.
Whitney: You may have, but that’s OK.
Paul: Awesome. Yay.
Whitney: OK. Well, firstly I immediately think of the first manager that I had at my first full-time job out of grad school, Karen Peterson. She was a tough manager. She wasn’t hard on me, and she didn’t, you know, diminish me or anything. I don’t mean it in that way. But she was tough in that she held very high expectations of what her people could do. And she helped me to have even higher expectations for myself.
And when she noticed this tendency that I had to deliver things early and then allow the deadline to creep sooner and sooner and sooner and have less and less time and not push back on it, she started to help me better manage my time and set better expectations about what I was able to deliver or when.
And I remember so clearly. I had this little whiteboard at my desk. We all did, actually. They were like little desk-sized whiteboards. And she was drawing a calendar on it. And she was saying, well, plot out what days you’re going to be doing what and generally how much time you’re going to need.
And I remember when she said how much time you’re going to need to get this done. It was a foreign concept to me at the time. I was 23, I guess - no, 22. I was 22 years old. And how much time I needed to get things done was foreign because through grad school, through college, high school and everything else, I did things the day before they were due. That’s when they got done.
If it required staying up all night, so be it. I was an English major. I had a lot of papers to write. If it was a 30-page term paper, it didn’t mean that I started it any sooner than a one-page paper. That’s just how I operated. I was a procrastinator. I was totally overextended. And so, I was working on things that were due tomorrow always.
And so, when she gave me this idea like figure out how long it takes for you to do something and then work backwards and say, well, this is when I’m going to be able to give it to you, that was completely new to me. And I remember saying to her, how? How exactly am I supposed to know how long something’s going to take me?
And she said, well, that is a skill that you build over time. And knowing that, determining that and then knowing it and being able to express it to others, is what is going to differentiate you. That is a skill, and that is something that will make people want to work with you. And it’s what’s going to enable you to get work done well, to manage multiple projects simultaneously, to be a good team member and everything.
And I was completely baffled at how a person could ever determine how long something takes them because to me things didn’t take varying amounts of time. I always gave myself basically eight hours from the evening before until the morning when I had to hand it in, and it got done to some degree in that period of time.
And thinking back on it there’s probably a lot that I did poorly that I could have done much better had I given myself the lead time. But that’s just not how I operated. It’s not how I thought. And so, I tracked myself for a few weeks doing things, and I actually -now, at the time I was working for an ad agency, and so we had to submit our hours anyway because we were billable. They had to know who we - which clients we were billing for my time spent. That was the model that they used.
But, I was tracking it for myself as well of, well, how long did I really spend doing those wireframes? How long did I really spend planning this usability test, conducting it, synthesizing the findings, writing up the presentation, presenting it and everything else. I didn’t have any sense of how long those things should take or actually took me.
And when I slowly started to track myself and I saw patterns, OK, three different projects, totally different things. But when I was doing wireframes they generally took me this long per Web page, for instance. When I then went independent, I had a much better time of predicting how long things were going to take me.
So, I knew if I was conducting user interviews each interview was, generally speaking, an hour. I did, generally speaking, an hour of prep per participant. It took me about five hours to plan a test, to come up with the questions, get the questions vetted, memorize the questions so that I would feel comfortable going off script if I needed to and be more conversational.
And then it took me, depending on the project, and average of five hours per participant to really synthesize and turning them into personas, you know, refining that, etc. And so I did, like, a little equation.
And, sometimes I was way under. Sometimes I was way over. But on average I was dead on. And I realized, OK, yes, there’s variability. So, I’ll subtract and add, let’s say, 20% so that I - I’ll give myself that cushion. And I got comfortable with giving myself a cushion.
And then it got to a point where I never delivered anything late. Now, yes, there were certain extenuating circumstances, family emergency, I got sick, whatever. And I would ask for an extension when I needed it. But for the most part I was getting pretty good at it. And, that reduced my stress.
But, when I had something new like, let’s say, I started speaking for the first time and I had to put together a presentation, I had no idea what it took to put together a presentation.
Whitney: And so, I didn’t know what effort it would be. I didn’t know what resources I would need. I hadn’t really worked in Keynote/PowerPoint very much before, so I didn’t really know how much I was going to have to learn the tool. I didn’t know how much time it would take me.
And so, I would often give myself not nearly enough time. And because in my mind the deadline was when I deliver it at the conference, the thing on my calendar was the event day. And I had these paying clients where I had many more intermediary deadlines where we had meetings set up and other presentations and things that I felt coming up sooner and sooner.
So the presentation creation got pushed off and pushed off and pushed off until I was butting up against the day that I was going to have to give it. And I went back into those old Carnegie Mellon ways of pulling all-nighters and doing things the night before. And then you’re really in no shape to give the presentation the next day because you look like ass because you’ve been up all night.
So, yeah. And then I would just be so scared about the unknowns of the presentation, is this going to bomb, that months in advance even when I could have been working on it I wasn’t. I was eating pints of ice cream and watching TV and knitting and doing all these things to avoid it because I was so freaked out about giving the presentation in the first place, causing even more stress on my body, making it even less likely that I was going to succeed because I wasn’t giving myself the time to do it well.
So, it’s funny the things we do to ourselves to create more stress. And, you know, as you briefly mentioned, there are people in your orbit that create a lot of their own stress. It’s probably totally unnecessary, but maybe it motivates them. Or maybe they just don’t know any other way. And for me it was that way for a long time until I gained some maturity and I realized I’m going to put myself into an early grave if I don’t figure out a better way to do this, to manage my time and manage my stress.
Paul: Yeah. And that’s totally - well, mostly - new to me, the idea of taking stress and using it to basically do better work or perform at a different level, because I certainly know that if I’m up against a deadline or I’m going to give a talk or what have you, although I want to come back to that, there’s the idea that, yeah, the closer you get there’s a time when you’re going to deliver that talk.
So, you have to stop working on it and start kind of talking about it or sending it off or whatever you need to do there. So, that’s a really hard deadline. In theory, I guess you could continue to work on the thing while you’re doing the thing. In a way, I guess that’s improv. But sometimes you don’t have that capability, and that could be even more stressful anyway.
So, I see it definitely as, then, something that you can use to enhance your performance and do better, in a way, which is new as an idea to me because I totally don’t do it that way. And it’s great that you mentioned a talk because another, for example, is that I am talking in September at WebVisions, right? And -
Paul: Thanks. I’m super-duper-excited about it. I love WebVisions. And, I’m doing a revision of my talk from February. And after - basically, after I did the February talk I kind of wrote a post about it and thought about the entire process. And basically I started working on it, like, I don’t know, November or so. That was - and this is probably one of the biggest talks I had given thus far. In fact, I think it was the biggest talk outside of an organization.
So, I didn’t know how much time to give either. But, with me it was like, well, I should start on this. And that didn’t mean necessarily I had everything licked in a week. But for me it gave me more time to refine it and then deliver it so that when I did deliver it in February at World IA Day - again, an awesome honor - that was like the ninth time I had delivered the thing, because I delivered it - you know, I delivered it to you - thank you.
And I delivered it to Carl Smith, who was awesome and gave me input on that, delivered it to my coworkers, delivered it to myself a number of times. So I had lots of practice on that. And that, for me, was kind of where the valuable thing was because then when I was in that moment and giving it I was not stressed. I was anxious and nervous, yes, definitely. That still was there.
But I was not feeling stressed about it because at that point I was able to say, oh yeah, I’ve done this talk, like, almost a dozen times already. I know this. And I did know it. That was the other thing. I kind of learned it. And it wasn’t my plan to do that. It just happened that way.
So, for me in that instance, and I find it a lot of other places, that doesn’t really help me do my best work. I find my best work is when I’m able to kind of get things done in advance and, again, not stressing over it but knowing I have the option. Like, if things fall apart, OK, I still have more time in my back pocket just in case.
So, when I see this in others, and when I’ve seen it in others, you know, it’s - I’ve - in the past I’ve been pretty judgmental about it, honestly, because I don’t stress myself out that way. Why do they do that? But I have a little better understanding of it now. Maybe they do that because it actually helps them, you know? Maybe that is something that helps motivate them or get work done or what have you. I know that does not work for me. I know that now, though.
Whitney: But that’s - and that’s interesting because I think to the extent that it helps you and you’re not hurting yourself physically and you have the right amount of stress, not too much that you aren’t taking care of your body and your basic needs, not too little that you aren’t making progress, but a good, healthy amount of stress, which I do think is such a thing, and I think it’s possible to achieve that balance, then great.
But when your stress that you’re cultivating for your benefit and hopefully not for your pain but to your - for your detriment - but for your benefit, when you are then causing other people stress as a result of it, that’s a problem.
Paul: Oh, yeah.
Whitney: And then it needs to be examined. So, if we’re talking about a coworker who does something similar to what I do where leaves things to the last minute but is doing so because that’s what really motivates them, fine. But if they’re then causing other people to not be able to do things ahead of time, if they’re a bottleneck or if they are flipping out and being very emotional because that’s what stress does to them and that causes emotional stress for other people just by witnessing it and being around it, then that really becomes something that they have to be more aware of.
And it’s interesting. So, part of what I’ve been talking about lately is emotional intelligence. And there are these four quadrants. And there’s the self-awareness quadrant, but then there’s also the self-management quadrant. So, if your self-awareness tells you that stress in a small amount is beneficial to your process because it’s motivating, it spurs you into action, it keeps you interested and excited, fabulous.
But you have to consider your self-management, which is how does that stress then seep out of you and impact others and impact the way in which you are conducting yourself with other people? And, I know for myself that when I have too much stress it negatively impacts Frederick significantly, because he is more like you in that he operates in a stress-free world.
He does everything in his power to reduce stress to zero. He sometimes doesn’t succeed because life, you know, throws you curveballs and then you’re under the gun. And of course he experiences it. But for the most part he lives a very laid-back, stress-free life. And he works very hard to design it that way.
When I come in and I’m like, oh my God, I have to get this done, which to me is part of my process because now I’m excited to do it, I’m revved up, I’ve got high energy, I’m going to devote all this evening to do it, then it’s like I’m taking something away from him because, first of all, that evening that we were going to spend together, I just have decided that I’m going to use it for myself because I didn’t get it done ahead of time when I could have.
Secondly, I’m in a tizzy. And even though that might work for me it really doesn’t work for him. And so, I have had to become much more conscious of the extent to which I let that emotional revving that is internal seep out, because then if I’m saying things to him like, oh my God, I’m not going to get things done, OK, I’m going to stay up all night, just ... I’m getting super-crazy high-energy with him, he’s not into it.
And, what does his energy level rising benefit me? It doesn’t. What benefits me is my own internal energy level rising so that I can really focus and sink my teeth into this thing. And that’s part of, for me, what the stress does.
When I am very - in the beginning of this conversation, when I said stress to me is like this pressure, it’s a physical pressure, a force pushing on something, if we think about what molecularly stress is, because the molecules are being compressed, they’re closer together, they’re hitting each other with greater frequency, they are moving faster.
And there’s a heat that’s built up. There is a greater activity and an energy that’s built up. And I do experience that internally. I feel my energy rising. But what good does it do me to let it seep out and vomit it all over him? I mean, it doesn’t really. And I don’t think that that’s a necessary part of my process.
So, it’s really important for me to be conscious of managing that so that I can tell him in advance, look, I’m going to have to get these things done. This is the time that I’ve decided is going to work best for me, which of course he respects. But I’m going to be elsewhere. You know, I’m going to be in my office with the door closed, or I’m going to be out of the house.
And, if I set that expectation, then I don’t have to be in a tizzy. I can be in a tizzy by myself. And that works for me just as well as it does, you know, spewing it all over him.
Paul: That makes sense.
Whitney: Poor thing.
Paul: Yeah, no kidding.
Whitney: Poor thing. He really does put up with a lot, I have to tell you.
Paul: Well, I like the idea of leading a stress-free life as much as possible because I had operated in that other world for so long and it just didn’t benefit me. Just feeling stressed about everything just didn’t - it didn’t do me any favors. And it wasn’t me, ultimately. Well, maybe it was. Maybe it was me at the time, but it’s not me now.
Whitney: And you recognized it, and you made a change.
Paul: Yeah, because I don’t really enjoy being stressed overall. And I think, then, the thing that I dealt with was going in the opposite where some people, however, may have perceived my overall calmness as not feeling anything or not being involved as much because I’m a little too calm.
Like, if things are really - you know, if there’s a big presentation coming up or something like that and I’m totally cool, then people could easily, and have, said, you know, are you invested in this? Are you working on this? Are you here with us? Is this cool?
And, that’s happened to me - you know, that’s happened to me for years. I mean, that happens. And the answer is, yeah, of course I am because I’m here and I’m present. I’m working on this. I just work in a different way. And that’s difficult. That is very difficult.
And, you know, there was a time as well when I was so calm in a lot of ways because I was actually checked out. So, that is no longer the case and hasn’t been the case for a long time. But I’ve also been at the other end of that, too, where I’m just - I avoid the stress and all the other stuff so much that it seemed that, hey, he’s kind of not really present.
Whitney: Well, I definitely don’t think that that’s where you are now. Just from our interactions and our friendship and me knowing the way that you are with other people, I don’t see you as being checked out. But I do see you as being very calm.
And I remember when we first met, and then when we first started talking about doing this podcast together, I knew that you would be a great counterpoint for me because I get stressed out easily. I come from a place where stress is the norm.
Maybe it’s my religion or my cultural heritage. I mean, Jewish New Yorker, it’s a stressful life. It really is. And yet when I think about my own level and stress, I think, oh, I’m so much less stressed than my mom. I’m so much less stressed than my grandma was. I’m so much less stressed than some of my friends are who still live in New York and operate in that intense energy all the time.
And so, to me stress is more normal. But yet I have a much better handle on it, whereas I see you as being so calm, cool and collected it’s encouraging for me because it makes me think, OK, there are other norms, too. There are other norms where no stress is a way that you can design your life. And it takes work, no doubt.
And then that helps me think, OK. So if I am experiencing adverse reactions to my stress, there is something that I can do about it, and it isn’t wrong. And so I, if I were you, wouldn’t let other people’s perceptions of your calmness stress you out any more than it needs to.
Paul: Well, thanks. I appreciate that. But, you know, other people’s perceptions of me have had a very big influence on me in my life. So, I’m still working on that, but thank you.
Whitney: Other people’s perceptions stress you out?
Paul: OPP, that’s right. Had to, sorry - too easy. So, the last thing I wanted to chat about was basically how you deal with stress. And this was what I had asked on Twitter. And, I haven’t done this before. There were a couple of really great Tweets that I got in response.
Whitney: Ooh, share them.
Paul: So, the first one came from Will Sansbury. He said, “Hey, is wine and video games a healthy answer?” I said, sure, if that works for you. Laurence Hart, who has the awesome handle “piewords”, basically said that he runs and reads. And then a couple of other folks also chimed in saying, you know, exercise, being at the gym, things like that, and then reading as well. Those are things that people use.
And I - that was all kind of very interesting for me to see. And it wasn’t necessarily reading a book. Like, for Carrie Hane Dennison, she said, you know, it’s either a book or- you know, e-book is fine, but she also takes breaks from electronics for short periods of time. And that all makes sense to me, but I never really thought of reading as a de-stressing activity.
Whitney: It’s awesome. And all of those things, to me, sound like forms of mindfulness meditation. Running is a form of mindfulness meditation because it’s activating other parts of your body, not just your mind. And for a lot of people who are runners, they say that it helps them clear their mind.
And I think even though video games require so much cognitive processing, there is to some extent a way that it clears your mind because you’re so actively trying to accomplish the goal of the video game that you’re not thinking about your work deadlines and your family problems and everything else.
So, yeah, and reading, too, I mean, you’re escaping reality and you’re going to this alternate reality. And I can absolutely see how those things reduce stress. I unfortunately have never handled stress well. I’ve never taken care of it effectively. I mentioned my pints of ice cream. That’s a very easy crutch for me.
I’m totally an emotional eater, so when I’m stressed out I go right to food. And I don’t think, oh, let me take a walk. Whenever someone encourages me to do something that is a healthy reliever of stress, I’m always so grateful because as soon as I do it, like, as soon as my foot hits the pavement, I feel a million times better.
I just didn’t have a lot of examples of that in my growing up, let’s say. We were in an environment that perpetuated stress and didn’t necessarily diffuse it healthily. So, it’s taken me into my adulthood to really learn that there are other ways. So, it’s exciting for me to hear some of those things that you’ve gotten reply over Twitter. I think those are all awesome examples of how to de-stress.
Paul: Yeah, I think so, too. I was super-thrilled to hear those ideas. And it’s funny because I really didn’t think about exercise as one of those ways. But it definitely is for me. And then, definitely taking a walk around the block, wow, that actually works really well. That surprises me, too, because if I am working on anything, just being away from that thing for a while and being out in nature is very, very helpful for me.
And that is a very calming, very calming experience unless it’s super-hot or super-cold out, in which case it’s awful. And, you know, it can get that way in Chicago. Meditating, obviously that’s another one that helps me with stress a little bit, just kind of being a little more present and being focused in that way.
And then, you know, the last thing that I will mention is that - I think we might have talked a little about this in some context, but - well, yeah, we have. I’m an early riser, and I like to get up early and get things done early in the morning as much as possible.
And, one of the things that I tend to do, though, is take time before anybody else is up in the house and just read or be quiet or get coffee and just kind of relax a little bit. And that, for me, is actually a big de-stressor. Like, if there is anything I’ve got I kind of start each day in a very calm way.
Sometimes those times are pretty productive. Maybe I’ve got some bills to pay or things to write or things like that. But, I don’t see those as high-stress things. Those are desirable things, and those are things I like to do. But, in general, having time alone to kind of get ready for the day in that way but not be asleep actually helps me a lot with stress.
Whitney: I think that’s incredible. And there are so many people who never give that gift to themselves, that 10 minutes alone or that moment to just reflect and not have to do something. So many of us wake up and the first thing we do is get on our phones and check our emails and read the news and look at Twitter. And then it’s like 0 to 60 instantaneously.
And it’s just in a slight second before bed when we, you know, close - or not before bed, at bedtime - when we close our eyes, put our heads on the pillow, that it’s like, ah, moment of rest.
Whitney: There are so many people who operate like that. And I’m one of them. And in my coaching program the thing that was so critical to separating this program from so many others when I was doing the research was that they take the body into consideration pretty seriously.
And it’s a whole field called somatics. And basically that means that what your body is doing impacts your emotions and impacts your thoughts. And whenever I’m coaching clients I offer physical practices as well. And that could sometimes be a 10-minute break in the middle of the day or closing your eyes or just taking a deep breath.
And, people underestimate how much that physical act impacts their emotions, their stress levels, their anxiety, their confusion, their challenges. Whatever they’re experiencing, it relieves so much. And I love hearing about that practice that you have in the morning of just taking that quiet time to yourself. And I would put money on the fact that that is largely responsible for why you’re able to maintain such calm and such composure throughout your day.
Paul: Hmm. That may be the case. I don’t really think of it that way, but I could see that for sure.
Whitney: That the foundation for the whole day is relevant?
Paul: That’s right.
Whitney: I love it.
Paul: Well, thanks. I appreciate that. But I definitely can’t say that every day I don’t end up sometimes checking Twitter or reading the news or whatever, too. That happens. That happens.
Whitney: Well, we are human, after all.
Paul: That’s right. That’s right.
Whitney: Well, I feel less stressed about things that I’ve got going on in my life right now because you’ve helped me to realize that it’s a choice and that I can do some really small things to just take those negative emotions away but still deal with what I have to deal with. And it doesn’t have to be a stressful situation in order for me to be productive.
Paul: And, I thank you. And, as well I didn’t really see stress as a useful tool. But, hearing the way that you use it as such gives me a very different perspective on it and gives me a lot to really think about. So, thank you so much.
Whitney: Thank you as always, Paul.
Paul: All right. And we will talk again soon. Thanks, Whitney.
Whitney: All right. Until next time—
Paul: All right. Bye.
Designing Yourself is hosted by Whitney Hess and Paul McAleer and is edited by Aaron Dowd. Our theme music is “All Heroes” by Ardecan Music Productions with some rights reserved via creative commons. You can follow Whitney on Twitter at @whitneyhess. And you can follow Paul at @paulmcaleer.
Paul: If you like what you heard on this episode, stop by our website at DesigningYourself.net. You can subscribe to the show via your favorite podcasting app or via iTunes. We love to hear your feedback. So if you have an idea for a topic, a guest, or just want to say hello, you can call our listener hotline. Call 1-404-500-SELF. You can always reach us on Twitter at @designingyou, and our super-secret email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for listening. We’ll talk again soon.